Butterfly Effect

As a science fiction, fantasy, and horror author, I spend a lot of my time creating and consuming content that hovers just outside our scope of "reality".  As much as I cannot precisely relate to space expeditions, zombie apocalypses, or the danger of dragon's gold, there is something intrinsically attractive about the features of these genres.

But after this week, I've been thinking that a lot of that attraction might be sublime.

You've probably heard of "the butterfly effect".  One butterfly, flapping it's wings, can cause a hurricane in another part of the world, and all that malarkey.  I don't disapprove of the theory; I think it has a lot of merit.  However, I've become a little neutral to it because, like Einstein's theory of relativity, or "chaos theory", "butterfly effect" is one of those semi-scientific terms that will get thrown around in every cliched horror, sci-fi, or general fiction known to man - usually by writers or directors who haven't actually deeply studied these theories for themselves.

I'm guilty of this as well.

The truth is, there's an entire valley between considering a phenomenon, and experiencing it.

A couple of days ago, I was sitting in a lecture hall, stressing about the day's to do's.  In my mind, I was debating whether I should visit the Student Accounts office first, or go and get my morning coffee, before hurrying along to work, afraid I wouldn't have enough time.  By a gracious miracle, after his film screening was done, our professor let us out nearly a whole hour early.  I hurried along to go get my accounts sorted out, then made my way swiftly down 23rd to grab me some Dunkin.

I was nearly to my dormitory.  As I paced down the sidewalk, before me there was a massive crash; everyone around jumped up, and a din of concerned shouts arose.  Ten feet in front of me, the flattened remains of a mildewed air conditioner lay pancaked on the ground, just a couple inches away from where one of the loafers had been sitting in his usual chair.

Everyone around me stopped in their tracks, reeling.  I don't think much of a sound escaped from me at that moment, not much more than a breathed, "Jesus Christ."  We all looked up at the building before us, unable to see where things had gone wrong, as people became to exclaim that the AC had almost hit that man.  After a few baited moments, I walked out onto the street and made my way around that stretch of sidewalk, continuing on to Dunkin as though this was common occurrence.  For the rest of the day, my hands shook with the excess of caffeine or adrenaline - I'll never know which.

I didn't feel as though I'd been in any real danger of anything but watching a man get brutally killed, but somehow that was quite enough to unnerve me for the rest of the day.  I thought about how easily my plans had changed that morning, in order to get me to that place in time, with a full view of someone's near death experience.  Ordinarily, I think we all regard our decisions as somewhat concrete.  Our desires don't often change, and so we tend to think of our path as somewhat preordained - by us.

For the past couple of weeks, Sony's Until Dawn horror survival video game has been sweeping the Internet, and I've been steadily watching its progress as many content creators on Youtube began uploading their playthroughs of the game.  It's one of those few games that has been a rare treat to the gaming community; it falls into the genre of games which are entirely choice-based, so that no one playthrough is exactly the same as any other.  The player is constantly presented with choices for the characters that may be seemingly arbitrary, but may have a massive effect on the story later down the line - especially since it's a horror survival.  It's the kind of game that has many alternate endings, instead of just one or two.  Until Dawn isn't the first game to rely on a choice mechanic and QTEs, but it is one of the first games I've been privy to which makes direct and frequent references to "the butterfly effect" in regards to it's choice mechanic.  The insinuation is never accidental, or just in subtext.  "Butterfly effect" is constantly referred to in Until Dawn's game dialogue and game features.

I'd always sort of regarded Until Dawn's butterfly effect spiel as somewhat hackneyed, for reasons I've previously mentioned.  As a study, it's common applications to everyday life had seemed to me fairly obvious.  Yes, clearly it is possible that something insignificant I do today could wind up effecting myself or someone else significantly years down the line - most of us acknowledge that life is unpredictable in that way.  But after this experience, I think I've been using this line of thought as a sort of comfort.  We all know that it is much easier to dismiss unsettling thoughts when their effect lies on a distant horizon, a date undetermined; it's easier to blame these effects on forces outside of our control that way.

But, though this line of thought isn't revolutionary, it turns out that the decisions we make in the now can have startling effects to our present.  Most of us acknowledge that time is fluid; the future is not set.  It's intriguing to consider.  But terrifying in context.

That is the attraction of chaos theory in fiction.  Even as creatures which create and consume meaning, we have trouble visualizing the sublime force that is "time and space".  These rare occurrences - near death experiences, tragedies, catastrophic events - which many of us witness primarily in fiction bring us a little bit closer to that understanding.

But what I've come to understand, is that visualizing a concept of time is not merely fascinating; it is horrifying.  Nothing is more sublime, nor more petrifying, than standing before an uncontrollable, unmovable force.  And unlike a hurricane, a zombie apocalypse, or a great sea monster, time is not something that can be made into just a fiction.  It is our reality.

And there's no escaping it.

Shai Cotten